Experts explain why your body slows down and what you can do about it.
In 2008, fresh into a new masters age group, I ran a 5K. Nothing unusual in that—I’d run spring 5Ks for quite a few years. The surprise was that I was 45 seconds faster than I’d been in any recent year. Age-graded, it was a massive PR.
Short course, I thought, but a couple weeks later, I did it again, then twice more. Friends were wondering about my training. “What are you doing differently?” they asked.
When I went back and looked at my training logs, the answer was surprising: I’d cut back my mileage. I’d done it simply because I was busy, but as the winter progressed, my speed workouts had responded. For masters runners, less is often more.
Aging, like injuries, is one of those things most of us prefer to deny. “It’ll never happen to me,” goes the common decree. But as a non-running friend once said about her graying hair, “consider the alternative.” Eventually, we’re all either going to become masters runners…or not be runners. The options are limited.
Internet fountain-of-youth claims notwithstanding, the passage of years does indeed affect athletic performance. The American College of Sports Medicinesuggests a depressing litany of time’s tolls: declining VO2 max, reduced strength, increased body fat, reduced lactic acid clearance, declining bone density, and more. Not to mention heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and declining mental acuity. Put these together and, according to data compiled by World Masters Athletics, runners slow about 7 percent per decade in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (and more quickly after that).
The better we understand this process, the easier it is to beat the aging curve. Even if we merely reduce the rate at which the years affect our speed, that’s a victory—the runner’s version of aging gracefully.
But it doesn’t take a total revision of training philosophy. “You don’t have to do a lot different,” says Greg McMillan, M.S., exercise physiologist, running coach, and founder of McMillan Running. “The physiological reactions in the body and the adaptations you want to get are the same.” In other words, we merely have to modify how we do things, not what we do.
Here, we take a look at what the science behind what happens to your VO2 max, flexibility, muscle power, and recovery as you age.